Saturday, January 17, 2009

Paul Collier

Paul Collier is a professor of economics at Oxford University. He is the author of The Bottom Billion, which won the Lionel Gelber Prize and the Arthur Ross Book Award of the Council on Foreign Relations. His new book is Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
It’s Our Turn to Eat: the Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower
by Michela Wrong,
Published by Fourth Estate, February 3rd, 2009.

One of the advantages of being an author is that other authors sometimes send you advance copies of their books. Over Christmas Michela Wrong sent me her new book, It’s Our Turn to Eat: the Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower which is not out until February 3rd. This turned out to be one of those rare books that once you have started leaves you no choice but to drop everything else until you have finished it. For me this proved mighty inconvenient – I face deadlines – but that is what I did.

The book is written like a thriller, except that this is reality. A tape recorder concealed on the hero’s body really did go wrong and start to play back out loud at a crucial moment. If his colleagues had been more alert he would have been dead meat. The stakes were not the usual thriller material of a cache of diamonds: the stakes were also for real, a $1 billion scam and the survival of a corrupt government.

But the key difference with a thriller is the sheer moral force of the writing, and beyond that of the story it reveals, and ultimately of the hero at it centre. The hero is John Githongo, and along the way you will discover why my own next book is dedicated to him. This is a book that cannot be denied attention. You will read it, you will tell your friends to read it, and they will thank you.

Europe between the Oceans: 9000BC-AD1000
by Barry Cunliffe,
Yale University Press.

My nephew gave me this for Christmas. He knew my interests. This is big history written by a professional: one of the world’s top archaeologists. The interplay between geography, climatic change, economic development and culture is the sort of material I try to work with in today’s struggling societies. Here it plays out in Europe’s own origins as people struggled to snatch a livelihood in conditions that periodically threatened survival. We now know much more about the distant past than I had imagined: new scientific techniques are parting the curtains on periods that I had thought were beyond reach. This is not just tree rings and DNA. Now bones can reveal diet in infancy, and from that it is possible to work out whether people were immigrants. The floor of a cave can reveal how in deep history food sources changed completely over the course of a millennium. And archaeology is starting to link up with linguistics and anthropology to move beyond retrieved artefacts to piece together the societies that produced them. Cunliffe’s evidence explodes what I had thought was incontrovertible: that civilization arrived in Europe from the Middle East. He builds a convincing picture of European cultures integrated by sea travel and developing largely internally.
Visit Paul Collier's website.

Learn more about Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places.

Read J. Tyler Dickovick's interview with Collier about his last book, The Bottom Billion.

The Page 99 Test: The Bottom Billion.

--Marshal Zeringue